There are toxins in some sunscreens, and they can be absorbed by skin. One active ingredient to avoid is benzophenone-3 (BP3), a suspected hormone disruptor found in 96 percent of Americans' bodies by the Centers for Disease Control. A study on BP3 appears in this month's Environmental Health News. How to find a least-toxic ray banner? Easy. Look on the active ingredients list for the minerals titanium dioxide (TD) and zinc oxide (ZO). Exclusively. Unlike synthetic chemical screens, TD and ZO block UVA and UVB rays without being absorbed by skin.

Next, scan the inactives list for suspect ingredients such as parabens (preservatives linked to breast cancer), and "fragrance," which, in the absence of specific plant oil qualifiers, generally means phthalates, connected to hormone disruption and obesity in lab and human studies. 

Want a handy list that names names? Recently, we picked some safer sunblocks that are free of both BP3 and octinoxate (shades of Doc Ock!), the latter suspected of both hormone disruption and links to low birth weight. And, here's some hot news: the toxin-busting Environmental Working Group (EWG), cocreator of the Skin Deep database, has just released a sunscreen guide listing Top 10 Products and Top 10 Recommended Brands.

Note that our Plenty picks differ just a bit from EWG's, even though we use Skin Deep to vet products! We're glad that EWG agreed with some of our top picks, such as Badger, Kiss My Face's paraben-free line, and Jason. Yet they burned (sorry!) some of our favorites, such as Dr. Haushcka and Burt's Bees, unjustly, we think, on the basis of weaker sun protection (SPF) and "fragrance" ingredients. We do wish Dr. H and Burt would simply reveal their fragrance ingredients like other green companies. But, in their defense, it must be said that Dr. Hauschka sunscreen is certified by B.D.I.H., which allows neither phthalates nor any other petrochemicals, and Burt's declares all its products phthalate-free. Burt's and others have developed a brand-new Natural Products Association (NPA) seal that forbids parabens and phthalates. 

At the same time, EWG approves some products that are not on our top list, such as Vanicream, and Walgreen's, both of which, in addition to zinc oxide, contain octinoxate, a moderate health hazard per EWG, itself. Go figure.

Of course, what one wants and needs most in a sunscreen is effectiveness. While EWG screened out products with SPFs of lower than 30, many dermatologists say 15 should suffice, if used as directed, and warn against being lulled into overexposure by products with high SPFs. They advise staying out of the sun as much as possible, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Personally, we regularly surf for up to 2 hours, in Hawaii's extreme sun, with Dr. Hauschka's water repellant SPF 20 coating us, without getting burned. We then paddle in to get hydrated, overeat, and reapply the block. While it's true that only UVB rays burn, while the more insidious UVA rays are identified with aging and cancer, at least we can tell a mineral block is still on and presumably blocking, so long as it's visible on our skin. Just ask a fellow surfer or swimmer.

Yes, we still recommend EWG's useful one-page list, especially if you'll click through and doublecheck a product's ingredients before you buy. Find it by clicking here.

Happy sun-dodging.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008